The Better Part of Valor: More, Erasmus, Colet, and Vives, on Humanism, War, and Peace, 1496-1535

By Robert P. Adams | Go to book overview

CHAPTER EIGHT
THE GENIUS OF THE ISLAND:
THE UNITY OF MORE'S UTOPIA (1516)

The Utopia, then, appeared when England was at peace and when a rather well-tempered humanist optimism existed, based on the hope that, at least in England, peace might continue and that a golden age of social reform might yet be possible. This optimism, one surmises, endured until the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520.

As we have it, the Utopia stands as a unified work of art, comprising what may be called the Dialogue of Counsel (Book I) and the Discourse (Book II) which sets forth a romantic account of the remarkable commonwealth which More's narrator, Raphael Hythlodaye, had ostensibly seen for himself while voyaging to the New World. The best analysis of its composition indicates that most of Book II was done in Flanders after May, 1515, and the rest of the work finished in London after More's return that autumn ( Hexter, p. 26). More's work was done, therefore, after Erasmus had already completed his sharp criticism on abuses of monarchic power in the Adages and had his Christian Prince "in hand" (i.e., completed or essentially so). To establish this sequence is to suggest the high degree of unity developed in the London Reformers' social criticism (see ECP, pp. 128-30).

Like all notable works of art, the Utopia is and has always been a focus for lively critical dispute. All efforts to ascertain More's meanings have, to be sure, been complicated by his masterful wit, humor, and pervasive irony. Both popular and scholarly debates, however, have largely centered upon the Discourse itself, for Book I—the Dialogue of Counsel— is by no means equally mysterious. Perhaps More's critics might be able to agree on only one thing: that his "piercing analysis, in the first book ... of the social and economic troubles of England, remains a famous document of social history" ( Caspari, p. 56). Since Book I is a dialogue in which More himself contends with his fictional creations, the globetrotting Hythlodaye and with others, readers naturally have sought to

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